Not all of Europe’s consumers are equal: The issue of dual quality products during the coronavirus



The discriminatory practice of selling different quality, but identically-branded, products to different regions of Europe, namely the East and the West, has been a topic of consumer interest for several years.

One might claim that those countries that receive such inferior products are not in the European Union, thus the EU would not seek a reason to address this issue among non-member countries.

However, members like Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary have angrily raised their voices over this unequal treatment, and have conducted their own research of the products that were being sold. A study conducted by KPMG in the Czech Republic found that nearly 80% of the participants were suspicious of the dual quality of products, a sentiment that affected their spending habits.

In 2017, then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a State of the Union address claiming that the EU was committed to the fight against unequal food quality and that a set of guidelines had been issued that would help national authorities determine whether a company was breaking EU laws when selling products of dual quality in different countries.

Unfortunately, governments may not be so strict towards multinational companies that invest and set up factories in their countries, which can lead to turning a blind eye to differences in the quality of the final goods that are made there.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre conducted an analysis of 1,380 products in 19 EU countries in June of last year and found that almost one-third of the analysed products had a different composition, but identical front-of-pack labeling.

While the coronavirus epidemic reached another peak during the summer, many governments advised their citizens not to travel and even resorted to returning curfews in certain cities, such as Belgrade, Antwerp and a number of towns within Spain.

Important topics, such as the dual quality of products, have taken a backseat in light of the COVID-19 crisis. But as new quarantines are expected, and there is a high probability that they will return once the autumn arrives, people around Europe will once again be stuck at home eating food and using cleaning products that local supermarkets provide – goods that are of unequal quality and consistency across Europe.

With this issue being out of the limelight, companies within the consumer goods industry can easily take advantage of the situation by letting the quality of their products slip as they will not be as strictly monitored in times of chaos. They will provide goods, and the locals will eat or use those goods during their confinement.  After all, why complain about your Milka bar having fewer hazelnuts than the ones your cousins eat abroad when you are lucky to get any at all? So what if the locally bought fabric softener has a pungent scent to it, unlike the nice flowery one that you bought while you were on holiday outside your home country?

The point is that as a member of Europe, in particular the European Union, which was founded on the concepts of equality and equal treatment, such divergences should be unacceptable. The excuse that products are altered to suit the tastes or budgets of different regions is invalid, for when a consumer uses their hard-earned money to buy a specific branded product, they expect it will be the same as what they found in another country.

Some have argued that because Eastern Europeans have smaller budgets, and that the products have been sold there at lower prices given that a lower quality comes with a lower price, the unequal standards are justified. However, of anyone who has actually lived in the region, the price of a branded products is not cheaper in Eastern Europe, rather, they might be even more expensive than in the West.

A mask-wearing Hungarian shopper buys cheese from a CBA supermarket in Budapest. EPA-EFE//ZOLTAN BALOGH

The difference in composition and quality found in the East and the West does not stop with food and cleaning products, but can be found in other items, such as clothing, footwear and home products. It is no wonder that at the first available opportunity, an Eastern European might go abroad to do all their shopping rather than buy the same brand at the mall in their home town.

As people are forced to live in confinement and avoid travel, the resentment grows with each bite of food and every time the washing machine signals it has completed its cycle, knowing that someone who is lucky to live on the other side of Europe will at least have access to better quality products.

The EU cannot let its citizens feel cheated. Now, more than before, the fight against dual quality products must continue as an ensured equal treatment that safeguards everyone’s consumer rights and helps maintain the mental well-being of people during times of economic instability.

Allowing each member state to decide for themselves whether a product is of equal quality will encourage corporations to use unethical methods to get the green light for their products in countries where the rule of law is not so rigorously implemented. A stricter implementation and enforcement of the law against dual quality is needed on the level of the entire European Union and not just on a country-by-country basis. Only this sort of a solution will ensure that such practices are eradicated.


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